Eastern Townships army vets fight PTSD and isolation at gym

Since last summer, a group of veterans of the Canadian armed forces has been training at no charge at a Sherbrooke gym. This was made possible by one of their brothers in arms, Jean Nöel, who put the project together with a little help from many friends.

Program started by Canadian Forces veteran helping fellow retired soldiers cope with physical, mental injuries

Alphonse Pelletier and his wife Rosaline Plourde are still working out. At 88, Pelletier is the oldest participant in the program. (Jean Arel/Radio-Canada)

Jean Nöel strains as he pulls down on the lat machine. Sweat drips from his forehead onto his already drenched shirt. "Blood, sweat and tears" is emblazoned on the shirt — and "RCMS Veteran."

Before Nöel's routine is complete, he will have run a few kilometres on the treadmill and climbed a few storeys on the elliptical machine or the stairmaster.

Nöel is a tall, heavy and visibly strong man, and one might expect the treadmill would knock the wind out of a man of his stature. But since last summer, he's been putting himself through this strenuous regime for two hours, three times a week.

A veteran of the Royal Canadian Medical Service — the corps for the army's medical personnel — Nöel served for 33 years, reaching the rank of master warrant officer.

These workouts are how Nöel is fighting through post traumatic stress disorder, as he has learned to do since he retired from the Forces three and a half years ago.

Veterans Madeleine and Walter Tollanaere each served for 31 years in the Canadian military — he as a vehicle technician, she as a reservist. (Jean Arel/Radio-Canada)

Nöel has reaped the benefits of regular, rigorous exercise, and that's one of the reasons he started a program to get other veterans out of the house and into the gym.

"I wanted to get myself and my brothers and sisters in arms out of the solitude, the difficult times that are being at home alone," Nöel explains.

With the financial support of a Sherbrooke gym owner and the Royal Canadian Legion's Poppy Trust Fund, a dozen or so veterans now meet to train three times a week, free of charge.

Many others like him

Through his project, Nöel quickly found out there were many retired vets in the Eastern Townships who share his situation — retired, lonely, dealing with depression or PTSD.

Take the case of Walter and Madeleine Tollanaere.

Both served for 31 years in the Canadian Forces, he as a vehicle technician, she as a reservist working in administrative services.  Like Nöel, Walter Tollanaere was diagnosed with PTSD on retirement, and he wasn't quite ready to face it.

"I have physical injuries and mental injuries. Even for the person who got it I was in denial for a long time," he said.

Nöel's program helped him get out of the house.

"Now I'm better. I'm sleeping better. It's nice sleeping six hours instead of two hours and things like that just because of this training here."

Jean Nöel, right, speaks with other vets at the Sherbrooke gym where they all meet three times a week. (Jean Arel/Radio-Canada)

Madeleine escaped major trauma in her years as a reservist, but she is benefiting from the physical activity as she keeps her husband company at the gym.

"We're taught to train together in the military, and it's expected that we stay fit. And to just get out and leave those core values behind, it's hard to separate," she says.

She's lost more than 13 kilograms since starting training with Nöel's group last summer.

The activity is open to all veterans who wish to participate, not just those who are suffering from injuries.

Nöel says you don't need a reason.

"Come and have fun with us and meet new people," he says.

 "Vent out any frustrations — or anything at all."

About the Author

Claude Rivest


Claude Rivest is a videojournalist covering the Eastern Townships. Email him at claude.rivest@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter: